Last month, the government quietly reformed the territory’s public holidays to better reflect Virgin Islands culture and history.
In addition to rebranding Territory Day as Virgin Islands Day and St. Ursula’s Day as Heroes and Forefathers Day, government established a new holiday to be celebrated for the first time on Monday, Nov. 8: a commemoration of the “Great March of 1949” and the restoration of the Legislative Council.
“This is a very important day for us as a territory,” Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley told the Beacon on Monday, adding that the legislature “was taken away from us in 1901 and even during that time it was not full democracy.”
“That restoration allowed for us to elect leaders who were among the people,” he said. “The development that we see today is a direct result of the leadership of those persons elected as our local representatives.”
Because Commonwealth Day lost its status as an official holiday under the new system, the total number of public holidays remains at 14.
Most of the changes in the calendar reflect recommendations made last year by the Public Holidays Review Committee.
One exception is the commemoration of the legislature’s restoration, which was not mentioned in that committee’s report, but Dr. Wheatley said leaders subsequently agreed that it was important to include.
The committee was appointed by Deputy Governor David Archer on July 7 to review a 2001 report prepared by a previous committee led by then-Deputy Governor Elton Georges.
The new committee agreed with most of its predecessor’s ideas, including changing the name of Territory Day to Virgin Islands Day, replacing St. Ursula’s Day with Maritime Heritage Day on the third Monday of October, and adding Heroes Day on the second Monday of November.
The changes to the calendar were published on the government’s website on Dec. 18, but no press release or notification was issued.
Dr. Wheatley explained that replacing St. Ursula’s Day with Heroes and Forefathers Day in October will afford the territory a chance to recognise important Virgin Islanders of the past.
“It was recognised that we needed a day to celebrate people in our community who made contributions to the development of our society,” Dr. Wheatley explained.
The minister added that recasting Territory Day as Virgin Islands Day is also a significant change.
“Territory Day is traditionally when we became a standalone colony from the Leeward Islands Federation,” he explained. “As it relates to changing names based on whether we’re a colony or territory, ultimately the goal is to celebrate the Virgin Islands.”
Also in keeping with both committees’ recommendations, Festival Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday have been renamed Emancipation Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“As you know, you have different types of festivals: arts, music, poetry,” Dr. Wheatley said about the emancipation holidays. “It’s important that we make it very clear what we’re celebrating.”
The 2001 report also recommended permitting “essential businesses such as pharmacies and food stores” to remain open until noon on Emancipation Tuesday and/or Wednesday. The new committee expressed its support of this idea if it is found to be legal.
The committee cautioned, however, “If we say on the one hand that we want to have holidays but at the same time still want to carry on business as usual, it defeats the point of having a holiday. However, if an exception is being made for the emancipation holidays, it should be carefully carved out.”
Government has not announced whether it plans to follow these suggestions.
The revocation of Commonwealth Day’s status as a public holiday was also in keeping with the review committees’ recommendations.
The committees, however, advised that the territory continue to celebrate the observance with activities designed to acknowledge the VI’s connection to the rest of the Commonwealth, including other overseas territories.
The 2020 committee opposed a 2001 recommendation to remove the holiday status of the sovereign’s birthday, advising that the official observance should stay in place as long as the VI remains an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
The new calendar still lists the holiday.